The Anatomy of an Idea

We often think of human creativity as an act of wizardry; a mythical talent bestowed upon a select few directly from the heavens. But I prefer a more scientistic approach.

Instead of waiting around for a lightning bolt of creative genius, let’s dissect an idea in the same way you dissected that formaldehyde-soaked toad in Mrs. Franklin’s 9th grade biology class. Putting ideation under a microscope allows us to better understand – and develop – the creative process.

Getting scientific for a moment, let’s think about an atom. We imagine an atom as a single thing, but there are mission-critical subatomic particles (protons, neutrons, electrons) that allow the atom to exist in the first place.

Just like atoms, several components need to bond together to form an actual idea. The five molecular elements of an idea are inputs, sparks, auditions, refinements, and slingshots.

  1. Inputs. Long before a fresh idea peeks into the sun for the first time, its DNA can be traced to its parents, which we’ll call inputs. Inputs are the foundations of any idea and consist of previous experiences, context, research, points of view, and external factors such as location. Generally speaking, if you want to improve your ideas (both quantity and quality), expand your input base. The more ingredients you have on the kitchen table, the more creative your soufflé will become.
  2. Sparks. Often confused with the full idea itself, sparks are more like tadpoles. They are the early beginnings of an idea but not a fully developed version. Sparks are those raw, initial half-baked concepts that eventually form into something of value. Fully mature ideas generally only come to life through hundreds of little idea sparks, most of which fail to see the light of day.
  3. Auditions. After a spark is generated, it must be auditioned. Auditioning is the step that determines if a spark should be kicked off the island or if it merits further exploration. Take your sparks for a test drive in order to refine your list of possibilities. I typically discard dozens of sparks for every one that makes it to my shortlist.
  4. Refinements. Sparks that make it through the audition phase are now subject to further polish. The refinement step is where an idea is tweaked, improved, adapted and sanded to perfection.
  5. Slingshots. In the same way inputs are needed before an initial spark, slingshots are the required step to get an idea out of the lab and into reality. They are not detailed execution plans but rather provide a directional guide as to where the idea needs to go next. Slingshots are the fasteners from one idea to the next in the same way one piece of a Sunday afternoon puzzle fits nicely into its neighbor. In fact, slingshots from one concept are often the inputs of the next in a sequence of interconnected creative ideas.

With a scientific viewpoint, we can remove the pressure to conjure up wizardry hoping to make every single new idea a masterpiece. Instead, use the 5-step process to deliberately generate, refine, and launch your best thinking.

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